Wildlife photographer Geoff Moon recently died at the age of 93, not long after publishing his latest book – on wetland birds. The National Wetland Trust has recently been selling copies of Geoff Moon’s book, and here we would like to acknowledge his enormous contribution to the photography of our bird life.
Geoff first began work in New Zealand as a veterinarian in the Warkworth area after arriving here from England in 1947. Despite this profession, Geoff is best known as one of New Zealand’s best nature photographers. He published more than 20 books, generally about our bird life as recorded by his wonderful photographs.
He pioneered the technique of using constructed hides to closely observe birds on their nests in a natural environment. Some of his early photographic studies, particularly relating to the Kingfisher, New Zealand Bittern and Morepork added greatly to the previously unknown breeding and feeding techniques of these birds. In fact, all of his bird photography was undertaken with the purpose of learning something about our birds’ behaviors, rather than just achieving an aesthetic picture, which he also always did. So while his images won him a worldwide reputation, he also took detailed notes that were of scientific importance.
One of his greatest achievements was to achieve what had previously been regarded as impossible –photographing a Kingfisher in action in the wild.
We usually see the Kingfisher’s dive as a flash of blue and a splash as it aims headlong from its perch into the water to capture its prey and arrives back on its perch in just 1.5 seconds. So the photographer has begin shooting his film as soon as the bird leaves its perch with the challenge being to know accurately where the bird is going to dive so that the camera can be aimed and focused on that precise spot. In the hide and its pond Geoff built on his Warkworth property it took him three years before he finally got the results he wanted - focused, close-up images that were so good he was the first to discover the kingfisher has a special membrane over the eye which closes just as the bird enters the water.
He applied the same dedication and ingenuity to photographing the morepork - a fast silent-flying nocturnal bird – only this was a technical feat that nearly cost him his life. Working at night in a hide high in a tree he had to guess where to focus as his subject carried prey back to its chick. One night a vicious electric shock knocked him out as he tried to change the bulb in a malfunctioning camera flash unit. Luckily he fell safely into the hide rather than out of the tree.
His lifetime’s efforts required countless patient hours in tiny hides, often 10 to 20 metres above the ground, while even in his 70s he would scramble up cliffs and high into the trees.
His extensive knowledge of bird behaviour combined with his veterinary skills also made him a key figure in successful efforts to bring kakapo and other endangered species back from close to extinction.
Moon earliest photography efforts began with a box camera, photographing birds on the Thames estuary marshes, and he was just 10 when he built his first hide to observe three chicks in a sparrow hawk’s nest. Geoff has been noted as saying he hated school "except for sport. And chemistry. And art. And physics. And geography".
He carried out his vet training in London where he later served as an officer in the British home guard on the Isle of Wight during World War II. After the war he was recruited by the New Zealand government and migrated in 1947 to establish the Warkworth Vet Club for the local dairy company, serving 460 farms – he would often be up before dawn to get into his hide and back again at night after a hard day calving in season.
Geoff’s work was recognised by conservationists, ornithologists and photographers who accorded him many honours. He was a distinguished life member of Forest & Bird, an associate of the Royal Photographic Society, patron and honorary fellow of the New Zealand Photographic Society and an honorary life member of the New Zealand Veterinary Association.
He spent the last years of his life at his home in the Waitakere Ranges, near Titirangi, Auckland.
Geoffrey James Harwood Moon, OBE, naturalist, photographer and vet: born Hankow, China, April 22, 1915; married twice, had three sons and two daughters; died Auckland, March 13, 2009, aged 93.
PATIENCE PAYS: Throughout his life, Geoff Moon spent countless hours in tiny hides, watching and waiting for the perfect shot, such as the inset image of a kingfisher flying to its nest with a worm.