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How to Photograph Kounavis (Beech Marten)

The Kounavi is a large, mostly nocturnal, animal that is widespread in Corfu and has a deserved reputation for being destructive and invasive. Often the only way you’ll know they’re about is the Kounavi poop lying around in the mornings.

The Kounavi is actually a Beech Marten (Martes foina) which is also known as the Stone Marten, House Marten or White-breasted Marten. The species is common throughout Europe and there is a healthy population on Corfu. It is similar to the more commonly known Pine Marten but differs from it by its smaller size and habitat.

Beech Martens mostly live a solitary life and are nocturnal animals, rarely seen during daylight hours except during the mating season. They are very much a territorial animal and keep their distance from others of their species and it is only during the breeding season that their shrill cries can be heard.

If you are extremely lucky, you might catch a young Kounavi in the open during the day and it might stay still long enough to get a photograph if you have your camera ready, and lightning fast reactions. Social media is full of images of Kounavi vanishing into the distance, and an absence of regular photos on the Corfu Wildlife sites is testament to their ability to avoid a camera.

When it comes to photographing Kounavi in the wild, don’t expect it to be easy. They have everything on their side, darkness, night vision; an acute sense of smell and an unerring ability to frustrate the best efforts of a nature photographer.

Setting up the Photograph

Getting the Kounavi where you want it

When trying to photograph a nocturnal animal like a Kounavi, the main problem is that the camera requires light……and there isn’t any. There’s no point in trying to run around the countryside with a flash on your camera in the hope of spotting a Kounavi, you can bet that wherever you are, the Kounavi isn’t. The only hope is to get the little blighters to come to you and, in this respect, humanity is blessed with the ideal substances to achieve this aim. Our secret weapon is a mixture of peanut butter and strawberry jam, which the Kounavi find irresistible. I have found a mix ratio of 3:1 peanut butter to jam works very well, spread a tablespoon of it on a rock or log and it’ll be gone by morning if Kounavi are about. Do this every day for at least a week so the Kounavi gets used to the routine and I’d recommend checking the bait point at around 11pm to see if it has been eaten. The bait point should be somewhere dark (no illumination from street or house lights) and located where you can get a clear view of it from a hiding place about 30m away. After a week or so, the bait was disappearing every day between 6pm and 11pm. I decided to narrow the time down a bit more by checking it more frequently but this only disturbed the Kounavi and it didn’t take the bait at all. I was stuck with a potential 5h wait for the animal to appear and there wasn’t much I could safely do to reduce it, without risking scaring it off.

Preparing the photo point

Once you know that the Kounavi will be at a certain point sometime during the early nighttime, it is time to plan how you’re going to photograph it in the pitch dark. At 30m, you’re never going to get a decent photo with an on-camera flash and focussing will be nearly impossible because you can’t see a thing through the camera.

The obvious solution was to simply set up a light to illuminate the bait area so that I could shoot from a distance. This was a big failure as the kounavi’s completely ignored the bait when the light was on. I tried various options to overcome this problem and discovered that, fortunately, many nocturnal animals do not have the ability to see red light as humans. I simply set up a red LED bicycle rear light on a broom handle about 3m from the bait point so that it fully illuminated it. I turned it on every night when I set the bait just in case it disturbed the feeding of the Kounavi, but it appeared to have no effect on them. The red light allowed me to watch what was happening and to see when the animal arrived to feed.

You are now at the point where you know approximately when, and exactly where, the Kounavi will appear. You can see the target bathed in red light and will know as soon as it arrives to feed on the bait.

Setting up the Remote Flash

The only realistic option for photographing the Kounavi is to use a remotely controlled off-camera flash. I set up my Nikon SB-700 flash unit on a Godox slave trigger which was mounted on a foot mount and hid it about 4.5m away from the bait point. Any further away and I couldn’t guarantee getting the right amount of light I wanted on the target. The flash was set to TTL so I could control it via the camera.

Setting up the Camera

One of the problems with this type of photography is getting a good enough depth of field to ensure as much as possible of your target is in focus. You don’t have the luxury of focussing on the eye as you would in the daytime so you have to be a bit creative. The excellent PhotoPills app gives you the depth of field for nearly any camera/lens combination and allows you to experiment.

The camera I chose to use was a Nikon D850 DSLR with a 28-300mm telephoto lens and a Godox Flash master control unit.

I decided that it would give me more flexibility to use the camera hand-held rather than on a tripod. I was going to be using an exposure of 1/250s so I wasn’t too bothered with camera shake. The camera settings that I finally chose were:

Aperture - f/8.0

Shutter Speed - 1/250s

ISO - 250

Taking the Shot

With everything set up ready for the shoot, all I had to do was sit in my hide and go through the checklist:

  • Bait at the bait point

  • Red light illuminating the bait point

  • Flash and remote trigger turned on and correctly positioned

  • Camera and Master controller turned on

  • Take one shot of the bait point to check everything is working properly.

Then I waited, and waited, and waited……….

Suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, something was on the top of the bait point. At first I thought it was an owl as it appeared so suddenly, so I took the first shot and checked the camera screen. There, perfectly exposed, was my first Kounavi photograph. With great care, I fired off another few shots before the Kounavi guessed it had been tricked and did a runner into the bushes.

I’ll be back Mr Kounavi!!

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