Wildlife Habitats

'a glossary of terms' (opens in new window)
Major habitat types, or biomes as they are now being called, are areas of the world with similar climate, plants and animals. There are two main categories of biome – terrestrial (land) and aquatic (separated into freshwater and marine).

In accordance with the WWF’s definition there are just 14 major terrestrial habitat types including the Arctic tundra, the sub-Arctic boreal forests and/or taiga, two types of temperate forest (broadleaf and coniferous), three different categories of tropical forest, temperate and tropical grasslands or savannahs, montane and alpine shrublands, Mediterranean forests and woodlands, flooded grasslands, deserts and mangroves. The aquatic biomes are similarly divided with many different freshwater categories of rivers, lakes, floodplains and wetlands, and marine habitats ranging from estuaries, rockpools and coral reefs through to the deep ocean.

When you look more closely at the list you realise how many different types of habitat there are within the world, and how many can be found together within a particular area. But, that's only the start of it, because many of these include separate ecosystems. For example, here in Dorset (my 'local patch') we have heathland, chalk grasslands, bogs and marshes etc.

The important and relevant point here is that all of these different habitat types are home to specific species of wildlife. Consequently, a wildlife photographer that concentrates on a certain area will only be able to observe and photograph those animals, birds and insects that inhabit that particular area. There is nothing wrong with that at all, as many amateur and professional photographers alike do just that so that they can spend more time with certain species thereby becoming far more knowledgeable about that species and indeed the area itself.

However, those that get a thrill from traveling like visiting different areas of the world and different environments. From a personal point of view I love experiencing these varied habitat types and finding out more about the animals and birds that live there. It’s both an adventure and a privilege to visit some of the places we have, such as Galapagos and the Pantanal and, therefore, it seems only right to learn a little bit more about those places.

It’s also interesting to visit a place in different seasons; a perfect example of this being the safari destinations of East Africa which have a lush (green) wet season and a dry (yellow) season – same habitat, but two very different wildlife viewing experiences.

A good general knowledge of wildlife habitats and wildlife behaviour is of tremendous help when looking for that next great image. Some years ago I was a keen coarse fisherman and, even if I say so myself, I was pretty damn good at ‘reading the water’. I could almost see through the surface to sense depth and possible fish presence. I knew where certain species were likely to be – perch hiding in submerged tree roots, chub hanging back just on the edge of the main flow, barbel in the shallower faster water, tench under the lily pads etc. If you know where to look you will often find what you’re trying to see.

When you’re on safari, it’s important to have a good knowledgeable guide who knows the area and the behaviour and movement patterns of the animals and birds that live there. He will instinctively know where to look for certain species. The habitat is important, as is your sense for spotting what might be lingering there. You’re constantly looking for any sign of movement, however small, plus any unusual shape or pattern that seems out of place. Some animals, and to a lesser degree birds, can merge completely into the background. Their colours often blend so well into their habitat that you can very easily miss them.

A good example of this was during our 2014 safari in Ruaha when we were fortunate enough to encounter a particular group of lions known as the 'old airstrip pride’. We stopped a good 30m away from where most of them were lazing on and around a small hillock. Between them and us was an open area of bare earth and short grass and then another smaller area just in front of the vehicle where the grass had started to dry. I doubt if that grass was much more than knee height as we could see straight over it to the pride. We had no need to get closer – it was a nice scene watching them going about their daily business. They weren’t asleep which was a bonus so, in situations like that, it’s always good to linger in case they decided to interact or hunt. Whilst we were watching them another one, and then another, would emerge from somewhere around the hillock where we hadn’t seen them lying. From memory there were a dozen or more of them in the end. Then, for no apparent reason, they got up one by one and started walking directly towards the vehicle. When the first one got to the dried grass it laid down. The others did the same until all of them were in this relatively small area just a few metres away from where we were sitting. Now, you’re thinking, what’s strange about that? Well, the point of this short story is that once they were all settled you couldn’t see any sign that they were there. They literally melted into the grass. Okay, they were all lying down which obviously helped their cover, but they weren’t even trying to hide. If they’d been lighter or darker in colour than they were you may have seen signs, but they were effectively the same colour as the dead grass and, therefore, were perfectly camouflaged. You could have driven straight past the spot without knowing they were there – how often does that happen? And, as a closing thought, what if you’d driven along and decided that it was a good open clear area in which you could answer the call of nature in safety! If that had been me, I probably wouldn’t be here now to recall the story.

The 'old airstrip pride'
The 'old airstrip pride'