Shooting New Zealand’s RAREST bird with a TANK

December 15th, 2009 § 12

TANKCAM (‘Rob-o-cam’). Tough assignment to film NZ’s rarest bird – the Fairy Tern for NZ Geographic Magazine.  Less than 40 birds known, they nest in the open and human disturbance may stop breeding.

Solution was to build a remote control ftcam_tvehicle that I could very slowly inch towards the nest over an hour while we monitored the birds’ reaction and leave it set up to capture intimate scenes (very, as you’ll see below!).  So that’s why I built TankCam. We’ve kept the highly successful assignment under wraps until now.  This video tells the story and gives you an idea of three days worth of filming, behind the scenes.  Please view and post your comments – it’s great to get your feedback:

Why not use a large telephoto lens you might ask? …Well we did, but the birds are small, and the depth of field very limited to get great shots of two birds. I wanted to try something fresh in order to get unique photos, and think this was achieved.

I was lucky to score a photo sequence for fairy terns mating!  Now that’s a story – when you have rare birds then breeding is of course rarer, and potentially the reason why there are rare. The poor boy spent all morning eniticng and wooing his girl with various fish treats.  Finally she relented, lay quietly at his side for him to climb on.  He neglected to hand the fish over, but she was demanding.  In the time it took for her to swallow the fish it was all over – exactly 3 seconds (as recorded by the camera metadata).  But that seems to be all it takes by the look on his face in the last frame. There you go…you saw it here first!

Fairy Terns mating at Waipu beach ©Rob Suisted /

The rig was perfect with it’s 360 degree rotation and up/down panning in the head so once in place I could follow the action easily from a laptop about 20 metres away:

TankCam at the Fairy Tern Nest ©Rob Suisted /

Read more at New Zealand Geographic Magazine. The next issue #101, carries the article that this shot was for.  Consider subscribing to the magazine - it’s a beaut.

Thanks to Ranger Abby Meagher at Department of Conservation in Whangarei.  Her help in understanding the birds and monitoring their behaviour on this assignment was very important.

Cheers, Rob

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§ 12 Responses to “Shooting New Zealand’s RAREST bird with a TANK”

  • Robert Catto says:

    Craziness! But good to know a gentleman tern will at least buy his lady friend dinner…

  • Rob says:

    Yeah, and I half expected him to crack out a cigarette afterwards…he looks pretty pleased with himself. Of course we should be encouraging this sort of behaviour to they get off the endangered species list ASAP. Rob

  • Caroline says:

    Brilliant idea! I’m surprised the birds didn’t mind being sneaked up on… and I hope they are successful in having some little Fairy Terns to add to the few that are left.

  • kurt says:

    Excellent idea..and the shots are awesome.

  • Wendy Cain says:

    Awesome Rob, fantastic tankcam and photos.

  • Rob says:

    Hi Caroline
    Yes, we monitored their reaction closely and slowly inched the tank in closer over about an hour and then left it there. They didn’t seem to be concerned at all. The article is out now in NZ Geo Magazine and looks good.
    All the best for 2010. Rob

  • Rob says:

    Hi Kurt. Thanks for the comment. We had a great write up in the NZ Geo Magazine about the Tank, which hopefully I can post shortly. All the best, Rob

  • Elizabeth says:

    Utterly awesome idea and you got equally awesome shots! I really admire your work in getting these images while considering the impact on the wildlife. If only more wildlife photographers were just as conscientious. Thanks for sharing this behind-the-scenes look at your photo shoot.

  • Tyrone says:

    Hmmm, beautiful beaches, remote controlled toys, portable technology, sneaking up on good looking birds….I want your job!!

  • Duncan Cunningham says:

    Nice work Rob and great to see dedicaion and passion in bringing the beauty and delicacy of nature to the world.

  • Rob says:

    Thanks Duncan. It was an enjoyable shoot. Hope things are good with you.
    Cheers, Rob

  • twitter says:

    Was thinking exactly the same, cool site, thanks.

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